THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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Where Are the Adults?

Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with youth marketers and cultural/media analysts.

Douglas Rushkoff
analyst of media culture and author of several books on new media and popular culture also is the correspondent in FRONTLINE's "The Merchants of Cool"

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In the "Dawson's Creek" tv series, kids are adultified kids. How is this to the marketer's advantage to write parents out?

Well, the object of the game for marketers is to appeal to children and teens as decision-makers. Because in the end you want these kids to make choices about what they buy. You want kids to feel that their consumer choices matter.

So what you have to do in making a TV show for children that's going to make them into better consumers is create a universe that doesn't have adults or at least has adults that don't matter. Even the adult in "Buffy" who used to be her advisor, her mentor, is now this sort of little, meek, surrogate parent, but Buffy's in charge. So you need to make kids feel like this stuff matters so that they actually pay attention to the ad, so they pay attention to their consumer choices and don't make them lightly. If kids make their consumer choices lightly, then all this money going to advertising is for naught. If kids take their consumer and consumption choices seriously, then it justifies spending all this money marketing to them.

It's very different from when we were kids. When we were kids, there [also] were no adults in the world of Charlie Brown ... it was more to throw the kids into the existential dilemma because Charles Schultz was kind of an existentialist. When it comes down to it, Charlie Brown is relying more on Linus than on his teachers or his parents to tell him what's going on in this world. He was a kid trying to know sense of reality.

You've still got kids doing that, but now they're being given tools to do it. Instead of it being a little vacant world of little heads going around thinking, it's a world of shampoo and perfume and clothing, where making these purchases can ground you again, can make you feel like you're in charge of what's going on in your life. You don't realize that you're really just choosing between Nike and Airwalk.


Mark Crispin Miller
media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

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Some might want to argue that the elimination of adults from the scenarios of teen TV is a profoundly realistic development, because, after all, there are no adults hangin' around in teenagers' worlds. So it's really more grown-up in a way, more realistic to write them out of the story.

But I think that while that might be the case in some instances, the fact is that it serves other purposes. I think there's a commercial logic behind that elimination. For one thing, it is profoundly gratifying to feel like you and your friends, your peers, are the center of the universe. There is a kind of implicitly fantastic appeal here that you, in that vicarious way, by watching TV can live in a world where you don't have to be bothered by those figures.

You also live in a world where those figures, when they do come up, are morons. They're insensitive, they're bullies, they don't get it, and so on--which is, of course, often true in life. ... But it suits the purposes of the advertisers and the media managers to concentrate only on the lurid, only on the most colorful kinds of problems. It serves a kind of pornographic function really, even though we often like to tell ourselves that it's simply a reflection of increased realism because there are such problems in the world.


Sharon Lee
a founding partner in Look-Look, a research company specializing in youth culture

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Most parents, they're really time poor. They're both working. They're not there. So they're physically not there to monitor what's going on so the kids have a lot of free time. Economically, they're given a lot of what's called "guilt money" -- "Here's a credit card. Why don't you go online and buy something, because I can't spend time with you?" There's a lot of that going on.

And now [teens] can work parents. It's not just the dad who has a credit card. Mom and Dad both have several credit cards and also when you're working all the time and you're tired, you don't really want to haul to the mall and spend four hours shopping with your kid. Sometimes it's easier to sit down with catalogs that are really specific to the young audience and go, "Oh, you know, isn't that great?" And "We like this and let's order it from the catalog or let's order it online." And so there's lots of credit card spending.

It seems like companies once used to have to go through parents to get to kids. And now it's direct? ...

...If you're talking to an under ten year-old kid, you always have to be concerned that what the parents are thinking and feeling are still a great influence. By the time they reach 14-15-16, parents will tell you themselves "they don't really care what I think." So it's pretty much they're on their own path and they have a really big mind shift and most companies will just go directly to them.

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